Top Japanese Wine Sommelier Tells Us Where to Drink the Best Wine in Japan

When Satoru Mori was 20 years old he watched a Japanese TV program that followed Tokyo-based sommelier Hiroshi Ishida in his attempt to win the World’s Best Sommelier competition. While Ishida would place third, Mori, then a law student at Nihon University was mesmerized and instantly found his new calling in life.

“In most cases, you become a sommelier because you like wine. I started drinking wine because I wanted to become a sommelier,” says Mori, now the executive sommelier at Conrad Tokyo.

After graduating university, Mori obtained Wine Expert and Sommelier qualifications from the Japan Sommelier Association, where he returned later to earn a Senior Sommelier qualification. He worked with sommeliers in Sydney and Adelaide in Australia and in Napa Valley and earned his stripes at Hotel New Otani Tokyo’s French restaurant, Tour d’Argent.

“Through the experience of living in all of these places, especially in Napa, you see that wine is a basic part of life,” says Mori. “In Napa, if you don’t have wine, you don’t have a meal. It is very different than here in Japan.”

Mori also trained in France, the Mecca of wine, in Paris and Bourges, where not only was his passion for wine deepened, but he discovered France’s gratuity system, something they don’t have in Japan. “By giving a better experience to patrons, I got better tips. So that inspired me to become a better sommelier,” jokes Mori, who has an easy smile and a quick laugh – important traits for a sommelier who needs to be able to instantly connect with discerning oenophiles from around the world.

After winning first place in the Asia-Oceania Best Sommelier Competition in 2009, and making it to the quarterfinal round of the 2013 World Sommelier Competition in Tokyo, Mori was selected as a semifinalist in the 15th Edition of the World Sommelier Competition held in Mendoza, Argentina in April 2016. Mori placed eighth in the world, five spots ahead of his idol Ishida.

“When I was young I wanted to be a top pro soccer player and play in the World Cup,” says Mori. “Instead I was able to get to the world cup of wine.”

In addition to having an encyclopedic memory of wines from around the world, Mori is an aficionado of Japanese wine, touring wineries throughout the country and even writing a regular magazine column about Japanese wineries. When he has time to get away on a personal vacation, Mori’s preferred destination is a Japanese winery, particularly in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan’s home for wine.

“My wife hates it, but I love to visit Japanese wineries,” says Mori. “I went to Nagano in the middle of summer and spent five hours in the vineyard. You won’t find me in Hawaii any time soon.”

Sitting down at a table in a private dining room at Conrad Tokyo’s restaurant China Blue (which has an 8-meter walk-in wine cellar), Mori shared his love for Japanese wines, and the regions that produce them.

- What do you enjoy about being a wine sommelier in Tokyo?

I have worked in many different places, where I was able to talk to a lot of people about wine. Now that I am in Tokyo, we have international patrons coming from all corners, and I have a chance to talk with people from all over the world. We don’t necessarily have deep discussions about wine, but I can talk to them and gain insights about where they are from, and I get a chance to introduce them to my home. Generally people are here because they are interested in Japan, and I am able to introduce them to Japanese culture. In France, I don’t have that chance, and here in Tokyo, I like that.

- What is your opinion of Japanese wine?

Being a sommelier, Japanese wine is just one among many in a large cabinet of wines that we introduce. Japanese wine isn’t as well-known as other wines, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That means there are a lot of possibilities. That means that there is a chance for Japanese wine and Japanese wineries to create their own identity.

- What is the best way to drink Japanese wine?

In terms of wines in France, the golden rule is this wine pairs with this food. Chablis goes with oysters. In Japan you don’t have that distinction, even with sake. You have food that goes well with sake, but you don’t have specified foods that pair with different varieties. To be frank, Japan’s wine culture is underdeveloped. The best way to drink Japanese wine is with Japanese food, like mackerel–a grilled fish–or dried squid. There is nothing that specifically goes well with Japanese wine, so you should try what you like and see what pairs well.

- What is special about Japanese wine?

The production of wine in Japan is truly a study in innovation. Japan’s climate is not necessarily ideal for growing grapes–any kind of grapes including fruit grapes. But because of Japanese monozukuri, or craftsmanship. The farmers adapted and learned how to grow grapes. They hang miniature paper umbrellas on each bunch of grapes to protect it from the rain. Because the landscape is different in Japan, you have the growing technique called tanajitate, where the grapevines hang from trellises. This allows for ventilation, and it makes the grapes easier to pick without stooping down. It’s something you won’t see in any other wine region in the world. Japanese wine is a product of Japanese craftsmanship.

- Where are your favorite wineries in Japan?

As it happens, I have written a book on this very topic. I have visited 30 wineries from Hokkaido to Kyushu to Okinawa. Yamanashi is my favorite by far because it is designed more like Napa Valley, where you are able to go to three or four wineries in a day. Plus Yamanashi is only two and a half hours from Tokyo. You can stay the night. You have the nice onsen. It’s a great way to spend a vacation.

- What Japanese wine regions are producing some exciting new wines?

Hokkaido definitely. It has a very unique climate. It doesn’t have high humidity like the rest of Japan. It doesn’t rain as much. There are no typhoons. It snows, but grapes are not out hanging on the vineyards at that time of year. So, if you have the money, you go to Hokkaido to make wine.

- What makes Japan wineries a good holiday destination?

If you go to a normal winery anywhere around the world, you go inside the lounge area and sample wine and maybe you go to the factory and see how it’s made. Because Japan doesn’t have space, the winery is located next to the vineyard. If you have a chance to visit the plot of land where the grapes are growing, I recommend that you just stand there, right in the middle of the field. You can experience how the grapes are growing. You can enjoy the wind, the sunset, all the things you can’t do when you go to a winery elsewhere.

- If you could drink any Japanese wine anywhere in Japan, what and where would it be?

I would go to Yamanashi because that is the wine capital of Japan, and I would drink a Koshu wine, because Koshu is the wine of Japan.